The baby is napping and I am sitting here just sobbing my heart out over the fire engulfing the beautiful 850-year-old cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. As a Catholic, as a medievalist, as a lover of beauty and history, I am absolutely wrecked.
I have always wanted to visit Europe to see the cathedrals. The reality that I will never see the architectural masterpiece of Notre Dame is devastating. Watching the church collapse piece by piece as smoke billows into the air feels like a punch in the gut. And at the beginning of Holy Week, no less. I am trembling with sadness over the loss as if it were my own home that I’m watching burning down.
But I am following the tragedy from across the sea. What must it feel like to be watching the flames tear down Notre Dame on the scene? To be scrambling to contain the horrific damage? To try to save holy relics and sacred art from destruction? The fear and the chaos of safely removing the Crown of Thorns and remnants of the True Cross?
I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s set in medieval Norway and one night, a terrible lightning storm sets fire to the local church of St. Olav. The protagonist, Kristin and her family struggle to contain the flames, to save the structure. But it quickly becomes apparent that it cannot be saved. Brave souls, including Kristin’s fiance and her father, rush in to save holy objects and the priest Sira Eirik rescues the Host from the flames and relics of the church’s patron, St. Olav.
Kristin’s father, Lavrans, emerges with the Crucifix in his arms. As he watches the flames consume St. Olav’s “His arm lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ. It looked as if the Savior were bending his beautiful, sad face toward the man to console him.”
May our grief over Notre Dame be consoled by Our Lord as his holy gaze comforted Lavrans. May we be reminded during this week, of all weeks, of the suffering of Christ. As we watch the destruction of this centuries old sacred site of worship, may we not forget the words of Jesus that the temple will be destroyed and then rebuilt in three days. His Most Precious Body is the temple, given for us in great torment. But his Resurrection is Our Living Hope.
In Kristin Lavransdatter, all that could be salvaged was safeguarded from the flames and St. Olav’s priest and his flock went through the agony of watching the whole church collapse.
“At the edge of the churchyard, Lavrans leaned the cross against a tree, and then sank down onto the wreckage of the gate. Sira Eirik was already sitting there; he stretched out his arms toward the burning church.
‘Farewell, farewell, Olav’s church. God bless you, my Olav’s church. God bless you for every hour I have spent inside you, singing and saying the mass. Olav’s church, goodnight, goodnight.’”
God bless you, Notre Dame. God bless you for every hour you have stood pointing to the heavens while voices were raised in song and prayers and the liturgy of the Holy Mass. Notre Dame, goodnight, goodnight.
It feels like a Good Friday today. But there will be a new dawn on Easter morning even if every church on earth is engulfed in flames. The glorious Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is still the reality we journey nearer to this Holy Week.
As Pope St. John Paul II told us, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.” Let us hold onto that hope in our grief. While Notre-Dame de Paris may be a charred shell of stone by morning, we know that the gates of Hell will not prevail over the Church through which God pours out his grace on his people.